Have you ever thought about how closely connected things are in this world? A car runs well when the power train, the fuel system, the electrical system, and the cooling system are all functioning well. If any one of these systems stops working, the car won’t work—or it won’t work for long. Similarly, a computer can run only when the hard drive, the memory, the monitor, and the keyboard are connected and in good working order.
It’s the same way in the spiritual life. Our spiritual health is dependent on many “systems” running well: our connection with Jesus, our attention to our inner life, and our efforts at loving one another as Jesus loves us. If we neglect any one of these areas, we will find ourselves being shaped more by this world than by the Holy Spirit. But if all three of these areas are in good working order, we’ll find ourselves becoming more like Jesus every day.
It’s a good idea, therefore, to look at these three aspects of our spiritual lives. We want to see how good spiritual health can be ours as we come into the Lord’s presence, allow the Holy Spirit to transform our inner lives, and try our best to love and serve the people around us.
Lessons from Peter. Let’s begin by looking at one of the great heroes of the New Testament: St. Peter. In many ways, this fisherman-turned-apostle is an excellent model. Like us, Peter had many good qualities when he first met Jesus. And like us, he had some qualities that needed to some improvement. But none of Peter’s bad qualities kept him permanently from the Lord. In fact, it was his recognition that he was a “sinful man” that moved him to follow Jesus in the first place (Luke 5:8).
When we look at Peter’s life from these three aspects—the heavenly, the inner, and the outward—we see a significant “before and after” picture. Over time, Peter came to love Jesus more. He came to see where his life needed to change. And he came to a deeper desire to share with other people the good news that he had discovered. So let’s look at Peter’s witness to see how he can help us in our journey.
Look Up and Live. The heavenly aspect has to do with our relationship with the Lord. It’s something that we can develop every time we go to Mass, every time we pray, and every time we seek God’s guidance. But it’s not only about what we do. God is always inviting us to come to him and drawing us to him. He is constantly pouring out his blessings and love upon us. He is always trying to open the eyes of our hearts and give us deeper insights into his love, his word, and his ways.
Peter was filled with many heavenly blessings. He knew that Jesus loved him. By God’s revelation, his eyes were opened, and he proclaimed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). He learned about the value of prayer. He was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Through a vision in prayer, he was led to share the good news not only with his fellow Jews but with Gentiles as well (Acts 10). As a result of these blessings, Peter’s faith in Jesus grew deeper. His sensitivity to the leadings of the Holy Spirit developed. And his desire for more of God’s presence increased. Likewise, the more we seek the presence of Jesus, the more we will find him.
God’s Healing Touch. The interior aspect has to do with God making us holy by forming us into his image. There are two large obstacles that stand in the way of this transformation. These obstacles keep us from the kind of life we all want: a life that is peaceful, loving, and holy. One is the way that our wounded memories influence our thoughts and actions. The other is the way our own fallen nature, the temptations of the devil, and the pull of the world lead us into sin.
God knows how our experiences of rejection, resentment, and personal failure have wounded our memories. He knows these wounds affect the way we relate to others, and he wants to heal us. He wants to remove the pain they have caused and give us the grace to forgive the people who have hurt us. At the same time, he wants to forgive us of the ways we have hurt people through our own selfish acts. He wants to help us ask those we have hurt for forgiveness, and he wants to help us overcome these sinful ways.
Again, we can see how Peter grew in this interior aspect of his life. Peter was an impetuous man. He had an opinion about everything. He frequently trusted himself more than Jesus. But over time, Peter was healed of his pride. He learned how to choose God’s will over his own. He learned how to repent and how to forgive.
Think about what happened after Peter denied knowing Jesus on Holy Thursday. Scripture tells us that Peter “began to weep bitterly” when he realized what he had done (Matthew 26:75). Imagine how discouraged and hurt he must have felt. Surely he thought of himself as a coward and a failure. But when he and Jesus finally did talk, it became clear that Jesus had forgiven Peter. He still loved Peter, and he still wanted him to lead the Church (John 21:15-19). In this one encounter, we see Peter experience both the forgiveness and the inner healing that Jesus wants to do for all of us.
A “Harsh and Dreadful” Love. Finally, we will grow in the outward aspect of the spiritual life as we sense God moving us to love others as Jesus loves us—without conditions and without limits (John 13:34). Many movies, especially romantic comedies, tend to portray love as little more than a gauzy, sweet, romantic emotion. Everything looks so easy and natural. But we know that love is also hard work. Perhaps Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it best when he wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Love can be “harsh and dreadful” when we come up against the call to give ourselves deeply to someone—especially someone we may find hard to love. It is also challenging when we face the call to forgive someone or ask for forgiveness. Love can be hard when we are called to move out of our comfort zones and be patient and understanding, generous and kind, honest and straightforward. But this is the kind of love that Jesus asks of us.
Fulfilling this call to love is impossible on our own strength. But when God moves in us, we begin to do things that once seemed impossible. Think about how Peter, an ordinary fisherman, dedicated himself to preaching the gospel and building up the Church. Think about the love that compelled him to risk his life time and time again in the name of the Lord. Think about how he ended up dying for the Lord and the Church he was called to lead. His witness tells us that God is able to take simple people, just like us, and transform them into committed, courageous servants.
“Give Them Some Food.” During his time on earth, Jesus gave his followers a number of opportunities to learn how to share the gospel and serve the people of God. When faced with a hungry crowd, he told them, “Give them some food” (Matthew 14:16). He sent out the Twelve and told them to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (10:7). He even sent out seventy-two disciples and told them to heal the sick and announce the kingdom (Luke 10:9). Clearly, the disciples had a number of trial runs to help them grow in confidence!
But then Jesus ascended into heaven, and the trial runs came to an end. He sent the Spirit to fill all of his followers—and that includes each of us! Now it’s up to us, just as it was up to Peter and the rest.
So let’s pay attention to the heavenly aspect of our lives by praising and thanking Jesus and by asking him to fill us with his loving presence at Mass, in prayer, or in his word. Let’s care for the interior aspect so that we may have good and healthy and holy relationships with others—not hampered by our wounds or by our sinful tendencies. And let’s strengthen the outward aspect by trying our best to love the people God has given us. If we work with Jesus in these three ways, we’ll find ourselves doing things we would have never imagined possible!